Meet Joe Bretherton – the Wiganer who has made himself at home in France

Ross Heppenstall
Joe Bretherton Toulouse Olympique Alamy

Joe Bretherton in action for Toulouse Olympique in 2022

When Joe Bretherton joined Toulouse Olympique on an initial one-month loan, never could he have imagined he would still be there six seasons later.

Not in a million years.

The versatile forward, 28, progressed through the ranks at Wigan Warriors, his hometown club, before making a life-changing move to Sylvain Houles’ side in May 2018.

Bretherton has certainly not looked back since.

He has become a stalwart for the French club and will marry his partner Lucy Langhorne on May 10, while their three-year-old son Bodhi is growing up bilingual in English and French.

“It’s been quite some journey,” the amiable Wiganer tells Love Rugby League.

“I originally came here on a month’s loan from Wigan but after two weeks I was on the phone to my manager asking to get it extended until the end of the year.

Toulouse then offered me a permanent contract and, the longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve seen myself staying.

“It’s definitely been an eye-opening experience in so many ways – it was the first time I’d lived on my own for a start and in a foreign country too.

“To see how far the club has come in the six years I’ve been here has been fun to be a part of that journey.

“Moving back to England would be quite a culture shock now because I’m so used to the French lifestyle.

“It’s a great place to raise kids and a very social culture with people sat outside the brasseries having a coffee and something to eat.

“Everyone just seems happy and obviously the weather massively helps.

“I came here with such an open mind and have always enjoyed travelling to different countries in the off-season, so I could probably go and live anywhere.”

Toulouse Olympique stalwart explains why Super League needs two French clubs

Toulouse are noted for their free-flowing, expansive style under Houles, a sheep farmer who became head coach when he retired from playing at the club in 2012.

They spent one season in Super League in 2022 before being immediately relegated back to the Championship.

“The culture that Farmer (Houles) has created here is fantastic and I’d like to think we have a really good relationship,” explains Bretherton, who hails from Hawkley Hall in Wigan.

“We’re both quite honest with each other, whether it be about performances or just having our say on things.

“The culture here is that we’re all one family and that all comes from the top with Farmer.”

Under IMG’s grading system, it is difficult to predict when Toulouse might return to the top flight.

Bretherton reasons: “As a club, we’re an attractive proposition on and off the field and we were unfortunate to lose in the Championship play-off final last year.

“Credit to London Broncos for winning after that second half performance.

“But you look at Toulouse and Catalans Dragons, the trips their home games offer to fans of visiting clubs, and for me that’s what grows the sport.

“I think if we went back up and there are two French clubs in Super League again then the game becomes a bit bigger again.

“Something has to change to make rugby league bigger and I feel that putting another French club in there is part of the answer, although it won’t fix it completely.”

Only Anthony Marion and Paul Marcon have been at Toulouse for longer than Bretherton, whose versatility has seen him play centre, back-row, prop and loose forward this year.

Bretherton believed he made his 100th appearance for Toulouse in last week’s Championship defeat at Bradford Bulls.

RFL stats suggest tomorrow’s visit of Whitehaven will mark his century of appearances, but either way he is part of the furniture at the French outfit.

Bretherton proudly says: “To reach 100 games is a massive achievement for myself personally.

“To stay at one club for so long is testament to the respect I have for Toulouse and the gratitude I have for how they’ve treated me.”

How Wigan Warriors helped shape Joe Bretherton as a player and a person

Joe Bretherton Toulouse Olympique Alamy
Joe Bretherton in action for Toulouse Olympique against his former club Wigan Warriors in 2022

Like many young players who come through the Wigan system, Bretherton was forced to reinvent himself elsewhere.

Nevertheless, his time at the Warriors shaped him as a player and a person.

He started playing for local community club Wigan St Judes as a seven-year-old before becoming a ‘traitor and crossing the canal’ to join arch-rivals Wigan St Pats aged 10 and then joining the Warriors on Scholarship at 15.

Jake Shorrocks, another ex-Wigan man, is also at Toulouse and Bretherton says: “Jake and I came through together at Wigan.

“We still reminisce about the challenges you go through when you’re there and how that holds you in good stead going forward.

“I’ve got good friends who were at Wigan and have made the transition into normal jobs away from rugby league.

“Kyle Shelford was with me at Wigan and is going to be my best man when I get married next month.

“He says what we learned at Wigan as youngsters has stuck with him ever since.

“He’s been able to use what he learned at Wigan and that’s credit to the club and the youth system there.

“I read what Matty (Peet) said about wanting to develop decent people as well as good rugby players.

“That’s something they definitely do and, if you were an employer taking on someone who’d been at Wigan, you’d know you were getting someone with a good work ethic.

“I’ll certainly always be grateful for the lessons I learned there – the Army camps and those gruelling training sessions!”

Joe Bretherton and his family loving life in the south of France

Joe Bretherton with son Bodhi and fiancée  Lucy
Joe Bretherton with son Bodhi and fiancée Lucy

Bretherton and his fiancée Lucy – who has just qualified to teach English as a foreign language and has a masters in psychology – are in the process of buying a house in Toulouse as they prepare to tie the knot next month.

They matched on dating app Tinder when Toulouse played Toronto Wolfpack at the 2018 Magic Weekend in Newcastle.

“The same week I moved out to Toulouse, I met Lucy that weekend,” remembers Bretherton.

“Lucy is from near Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales and we had a long-distance relationship to begin with.

“She was at university doing her masters degree and then finished that before moving out here with me.

“Who knows where the future might take us?

“But our families come out from England to visit us and we’re very settled here in Toulouse.”

Bretherton holds a degree in strength and conditioning and is now doing a masters in psychology.

A career in sports psychology is an option when he finally retires.

“I could maybe do that with sports teams or with businesses,” he says.

Toulouse are very supportive and a few lads are doing university courses.

“My missus and I are both big fans of Canada and some of the other overseas players here always tell us that we’d love Australia and New Zealand.

“Whether it’s staying in France, going back to the UK, or another country, we’re pretty open-minded about the future.”

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